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Stopping you for no reason

When Washington Governor Chris Gregoire was explaining on Monday her rationale behind her new security checkpoint program, she pointed out that we already have security stops and checks at courthouses and airports. In many of those places, we do; and the proposed expansion of governmental stops and checks of citizens who are minding their own business and violating no law is one of the exact reasons we disapprove of them so much. Where will the quest for “safety” and “security” lead us next? How much more thoroughly will the Fourth Amendment be eviscerated in the name of keeping people safe?

Not that intoxicated driving, the intended target here, is a small thing; it is a substantial killer. But the heightened penalties and law enforcement watches for drunken drivers, and improved public awareness, have had positive effect: There’s been a general decline in DUI over the last couple of decades. Much of what’s been done has worked, and a variety of non-intrusive options not much use so far should be. Technology, from ignition locks to portable breathalyzers and beyond, not to mention improved efforts against alcoholism, can help further. When she said that “The fact of the matter is it’s a different day than it was 20 years ago,” she’s right: The problem is less extreme than it was then, and we have much better options now than we did then.

The freedom to travel from place to place without being stopped by government authorities – absent some specific reason why you should be – is core and central to freedom in America. Every one of these generalized stops and checkpoints of people undermines that, a point courts generally have upheld over the years, including courts in Washington when this kind of idea was proposed in the last decade.

We think this is a lousy idea even if it works as intended, but we doubt that it will. Cops spending their time stopping and checking every driver (or every random fourth, or whatever it is) who are doing nothing wrong, are cops not checking on particularized violations (of DUI or whatever) somewhere else.

Beyond that, the procedure will make these stops pretty easy for drunks to avoid. From Gregoire’s office: “The proposed legislation would require law enforcement to apply for a warrant to conduct an administrative sobriety checkpoint in their county. The application would have stringent guidelines including information like geographic locations and checkpoint specifics.” This would be public: The proposed legislation says specifically that the public will be notified prior to the checkpoints being set up. You can imagine that among the drinking crowd, word will spread. The rest of us, less motivated to track these things, may be stopped disproportionately.

And for DUI exclusively? You can see this coming: Agencies will want to piggyback other agendas on top of this one, just as the Patriot Act, supposedly solely an anti-terrorist measure, has been used much more for other purposes. Have no doubt, if this approach takes affect, it will happen. Where it will end, where its practical limits will be, remain unclear.

What this most specifically would accomplish would get Americans ever more accustomed another stop and search routine of them by their government. And that is how the fourth amendment, and the sense of what it is to live in a free country, gets gradually whittled away.

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